Guest post: Eugene Woodbury on humor and the literary novel

Eugene Woodbury recently sent in an e-mail to the AML List reacting to a recent commentary on the modern literary novel. I was taken by his ideas and asked him to expand a bit on the e-mail for an AMV guest post — here is the result (Wm Morris):

“What is wrong with the modern literary novel?” asks Julian Gough in the current issue of Prospect Magazine. “Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?” The problem, he argues, is that we’ve forgotten that comedy is the true, default state of how art should react to the human condition, not tragedy:

At the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life. But comedy was the gods’ view, from on high . . . And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.I find this perspective highly amenable to a Mormon theology that posits a God possessed of human empathy. The Mormon God must have a rich sense of been-there, done-that humor to understand the human condition. But we’ve been seduced by the same temptations: “If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode.”

This leads Gough to the one major error in the essay, when he states that, “The Bible, from apple to Armageddon, does not contain a single joke.”

This is an understandable mistake. The Bible is full of wry and bawdy humor. But we’ve been programmed to ignore and misinterpret it. In The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood notes that “we habitually think of [Jesus] as mild in manner, endlessly patient, grave in speech and serious . . . [but] a prosy literalism misses the wry humor . . . and the point of the teaching.”

A good example of this is the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4). It’s a remarkably ribald exchange and Jesus doesn’t shrink from matching her wit for wit. Likewise, the woman in Matthew 15 who retorts, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” wins admiration from Jesus, not his condemnation or a turned-up nose.

The King James Version is no help in this respect. Compare the above passages in the KJV and NIV and the differences in tone become obvious. Humor largely arises out of colloquial usages, which date the fastest as language evolves. (On the plus side, Romeo and Juliet is allowed in high school classrooms because the dirty jokes sail right over our heads.)

If Gough misses the mark when it comes to scripture, he hits the nail on the head in his critique of the contributions of higher education to the problem: “The literary novel, by accepting the embrace of the universities, has moved inside the establishment and lost contact with what made it vital.” And yet it keeps on going because

if you must please the older generation to pass [the class] . . . you end up with cautious, old-fashioned novels. Worse, the system turns peers into teachers. Destroyed as writers, many are immediately re-employed, teaching creative writing. This is a Ponzi scheme.And where, in contrast, does the narrative form survive in its least-corrupted form? Television. Gough specifically points to The Simpsons: “With its cartoon event-rate, a classic series of The Simpsons has more ideas over a broader cultural range than any novel written the same year.”

In a recent post on what she calls “bad-tempered doctors with hearts of gold” — Cox (from Scrubs), Becker (from Becker) and House (from House) — my sister Kate concludes, “What makes all three of the doctors interesting to watch is that they act the role of ‘fool’ . . . in the old Shakespearean/King Lear sense. They say things other people won’t admit or want to hear.”

And in the process they appear foolish. Or as it says in Moses 6:38, “There is a strange thing in the land; a wild man hath come among us.” A longing for such “wild men” I think can be detected in the wistful sense of loss with which Mormon share J. Golden Kimball stories, knowing that his kind will never come again.

Of course, liking television, especially commercial television, is not something educated people are supposed to do. Gough admits that citing The Simpsons in the same breath as Aristophanes might get him labeled a barbarian. So be it. The literary novel “needs the barbarians. It secretly yearns for them.” I’m with Gough. If anybody’s up for storming the gates, count me in.

18 thoughts on “Guest post: Eugene Woodbury on humor and the literary novel”

  1. I can recommend two books. “Curse of Chalion” and “Paladin of Souls.” I love them to bits. They both have something big to say about faith, they both have peril and adventure and they both have wit!

    An example:
    Ista stood on tiptoe, grabbed one ear and whispered toward it, “Behave for Lord Arhys. Or I will make you WISH I’d merely ripped your guts out, strangled you with them and fed you to the gods.”

    “Dogs,” corrected the nervous groom holding the twitch.

    “Them, too,” said Ista.

  2. You know, it’s kind of nice to know that while I’m here, feeling miserable about all the terrible things in my life (like PLSC 200), God is up there laughing about it. At least, that’s what the greeks seemed to say.

    Seriously, though, that’s interesting. I think that science fiction and fantasy tends to be a lot less stuffy and a lot more interesting and innovative than the literary stuff (though literary types sometimes seem to snub those genres completely). I love reading a good Leading Edge or Escape Pod story that gets me to think, and to care about something.

  3. I remember writing a script about a writer struggling to create the perfect tragic “American” novel and discovering to his horror that no matter how he killed off the protagonist in the end, his piece ended up being a comedy. I have lamented many times since that day how foolish I was to have written it, not because it wasn’t good, but because it’s clear to me now that I hit my peak at too young an age. I truly believe that I’ll never write anything that good again (assuming it was good in the first place).

    When I was still rather young (but writing even then), I remember watching “Good Morning Viet Nam” with my mother. I was blown away by how good Robin Williams was as a “tragic” actor. The same has since followed for Steve Martin (Parenthood), Will Smith (Ali), Jamie Foxx (Collateral), Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and other so-called comedians. And I still remember my mother telling me how comedians were the best actors because comedy has given them a more universal perspective on tragedy. A look at the great actors (not stars, mind you) generally reveals great comedians: Tom Hanks, Peter Sellers, Jack Nicholson.

    I tend to find the literary equivalent to be true as well. Douglas Adams makes me laugh until I cry. Then, when I least expect it, he just plain makes me cry. The same goes for Heller and Vonnegut. I laughed hysterically when reading Angela’s Ashes, largely because McCourt wrote about his youth as if oblivious to the tragedy of it. For that, more than anything else in the book, I wept.

    In the end, I suppose I agree with Gough. If a novel fails to make me laugh, then it likely fails, period. Only people who know how to laugh know what’s worth crying over in the first place.

  4. “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole; a rather tragic novel that will have you on the floor howling with laughter.

  5. Re: a writer struggling to create the perfect tragic “American” novel and discovering to his horror that no matter how he killed off the protagonist in the end, his piece ended up being a comedy.

    Ha, that’s fabulous!!! Is this play available online somewhere?

  6. I wish. No, it’s actually a short film called “The End.” I’ll get in touch with the cinematographer and see if he’s interested in putting it online.

  7. Gen. 25 through 49 is filled with what I take as humor, or at least wryness, from Jacob’s struggle in the womb with Esau through Esau’s selling of his birthright, through Joseph’s messing with his brothers’ heads when they come to Egypt for grain. Jacob’s blessing of his sons in 49 has its moments, too. There’s a wealth of foolishness in these stories; anyway, they make me laugh. It would be cool for someone to present a modern take on this string of stories that spotlights their humor.

    Thanks for the post, Eugene.

  8. I want to hear some more of the biblical humor. How odd that I’ve always missed it! Is there humor in the Book of Mormon too?

    My recommendation for a contemporary literary fiction writer who’s wonderfully funny is Mark Salzman. His books have a great warmth and depth, as well as humor.

    I wish I’d known Tom Jones by Henry Fielding was so funny years before. I put off reading it, and when I finally did it became a favorite. So hilarious!

    Of course, Jane Austen is most excellently funny as well, as everyone knows. I love how her wit was so affectionate. She poked fun at all my foibles in a way that made me sure she still loved me despite them. =)

    I agree that Science Fiction has some of the best writing going on today. Douglas Adams is great but also read Lois McMaster Bujold. Her book “A Civil Campaign” was nonstop hilarity, though there’s funny stuff in all of them.

    Another really funny guy is Michael Innes. Has anyone else discovered him? He was an Oxford Don who wrote mystery books for fun and they’re witty and erudite and very perceptive about life and the human condition.

    Okay, my last recommendation for a funny writer is Nevil Shute. His humor is of the subtle and pervasive variety. He was a great storyteller, a writer in Britain and Australia during and after World War 2. My favorites are “Round the Bend”, “Trustee from the Toolroom”, “The Pied Piper”, “The Legacy”, and “No Highway”. His stuff is mostly out of print now, but it’s still available on Amazon and many second hand book places like Alibris.

    Great post!

  9. Thank you Eugene, and William, for engaging so fully with my essay.

    It was a pleasure reading your post, Eugene, and I found a lot to enjoy in the comments too.

    We might have to agree to differ on the subject of comedy in the Bible (I tend to feel that we are capable of finding great humour in the Bible, but that the writers, too in awe of their great subject perhaps, didn’t intentionally put the humour there).

    I agree with you on the longing for “wild men”, the cultural need for “wild men”, in every generation, as the culture grows tired and craves renewal. (Art and culture, like everything else, follow an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.)

    And I was fascinated by Kate’s idea that US medical dramas were smuggling the Shakespearean fool back onto primetime TV. Because we need the characters who:

    “…say things other people don’t admit/want to hear.”

    I love the sound of Eric Thompson’s script too.

    And I agree with R.W. Rasband about A Confederacy of Dunces, so funny and so heartbreaking…

    Best of luck with the site, it’s great,

    -Julian Gough, Berlin

  10. Tatiana, I personally believe that there is tons of humor in the Book of Mormon, though considering the book’s purpose, I can’t say that it’s intentional. My favorite example, however, is after Abinadi preaches to the people of King Noah and they try to kill him the first time, he takes a two year hiatus before returning. Verse one of the twelfth chapter of Mosiah is hysterical to me. Abinadi comes to the people in disguise so they won’t recognize him and the first words out of his mouth are “Thus has the Lord commanded me, saying–Abinadi!” That’s our Abinadi. Great prophet, not-so-great master of disguise.

  11. I always preferred Abraham’s plainspoken opening to his account, which in retrospect is rather tongue-in-cheek:

    “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence;”

    It initially reads like a “ho-hum, time to move along” statement, but then a few verses later you read about how the corrupt priests had nearly killed him, and his life was still in danger, and he had to get the hell out of Dodge in order to just breathe the next day. “Needful” to find a new place of “residence” indeed!

  12. I’ve never thought of the scriptures as containing humor. Thanks, you guys.

    I would like to believe God has a sense of humor.

    Funny books I’ve read: Marley the world’s most terrible dog, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and The Last Juror all made me laugh out loud. Also, the couple of chapters I read in Augesten Burroughs book (before the explicit gay sex parts)made me laugh out loud.

    I heard Chris Rock say once that black people are the hardest to make laugh. It’s got to be really funny before they laugh out loud. That’s me. Attempts at humor, or books discussing humor are not funny. Bright cheerful books (lots of LDS fiction)masquerade as humor, but are seldom really funny.

    I’m with the ancient Greeks.

  13. One of my favorite humorous parts in the Old Testament is when Elijah is baiting the priests of Baal. Of course, being the Old Testament, the passage gets pretty violent towards the end, but the beginning part is hilarious. Elijah keeps saying things like, “Maybe your god hasn’t come yet cause he’s chatting. Maybe he’s sleeping. Maybe he went on a trip.” You get the impression that, if it were a Greek story, Elijah would have gotten a lot more ribald. (And maybe he did and those parts were cut out!)

    It also explains why Jezebel got so mad. Sure, he killed her priests, but he TAUNTED them first.

    BTW, Elijah’s prodigy is Elisha who gets bears to maul the rude “youths” (i.e. teenagers). You gotta love these guys.

  14. I think humor can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Take all those cranky TV doctors for example. When was the last time Dr. Cox, or House for that matter, was able to make a joke that wasn’t crude or didn’t invovle making someone feel *truly* humiliated. And humor can be difficult in other ways too. Look at LDS comedy as it now stands. The closest things we have to wit are slapstick and cartoonish(calling them farcical actually seems too kind). I point this all out just to ask the question of how do you mitigate all that? How do you make a joke without appealing to the lowest common denominator and still be funny? How does funny work when you’re not making fun of someone? I also think TV has the upper hand on comedy because it is a lot easier to be physically funny than mentally funny. Can you imagine how many sentences it would take to describe one of Dr. Cox’s faces? I think comedy in novels is a bit of a different question than comedy in other forms of literature.

  15. I agree that humor is difficult. I could never get into “Everybody Loves Raymond” because the jokes seemed so MEAN: skin-crawling mean. In contrast, I don’t really know why House, for example, doesn’t bother me. It may be because the dialog is so rapid. It may also be because House’s behavior is intrinsic to House. *He* doesn’t necessarily expect the audience to laugh, even if the writers do.

    I do think the kind of quick-witted dialog found in old black & white movies has come back to television. I’m not sure about novels. It is much harder to get that sort of thing to work in a novel without coming off as coy and cloying. I think the best kind of novel humor is the kind of humor found in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell where the humor is very, very, very dry. But then one must be Jane Austen in order to write it. (Which could explain the billions of books out there which re-use her plots.)

  16. I loved the humor in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

    And I agree with your assessment of Everybody Loves Raymond. I’m trying to figure out why the relationship humor there is skin-crawling, but Dr. Cox’s relationship with his wife (and others) in Scrubs doesn’t bother me — and is often funny.

  17. I also thought it was funny when Abinadi says something to the effect of “you will not have power to slay me until I’ve said my peace”. He then proceeds to talk for like 3 hours. There is a lot of humor in the Book of Mormon. Especially describing exploits during the wars.

    “But behold, they were Nephites.” There was some kind of disguise intrigue. Throwing down the rocks at their will and pleasure. Well, I can’t do it, but trust me, it’s screamingly funny.

    Or the bit with the fortified wine, and the guards want to skim a bit of it, and the pranksters say “no, this is for a special occasion” but that only made them more desirous…

  18. I enjoyed the essay and followup comments. I have found that some of my most favorite, profound moments of personal revelation have involved humor. The Lord definitely doesn’t want me to take myself too seriously.

    I highly recommend Enzio Busche’s autobiographical book Yearning for the Living God. He tells a wonderful story of casting an evil spirit out of a missionary; I hate to even summarize it because it needs to be told in his words. But he makes the point that the adversary does not have a sense of humor.

    There are parts of the scriptures that definitely make me laugh, although like someone said I don’t know if I think the writers meant for it to be funny. One that comes to mind was Jeremiah, who was approached by a group of those left in Jerusalem after many had been taken captive. IIRC, they wanted Jeremiah to ask the Lord what they should do. He said, no, you won’t listen. They said, “please, please, we promise we’ll do whatever you say!” So he does, and comes back and tells them “whatever you do, don’t go to Egypt or you’ll be killed.” “WHAT?” they respond. “God did not tell you that!” And they go to Egypt.

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